Republican presidential hopefuls Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley were back on the debate stage Wednesday night to appeal to voters just five days before the Iowa caucuses. 

Former President Donald Trump was the only other primary candidate to meet the 10% polling benchmark to qualify for the debate, but as with the previous four debates, he declined to participate. Instead, Trump appeared on a Fox News town hall in Iowa at the same time.

CNN hosted the two-hour debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, which started at 9 p.m. EST. CNN anchors Jake Tapper and Dana Bash moderated the debate. 

Neither former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, nor entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy qualified for the debate, and Christie formally withdrew from the race Wednesday, just hours before the debate was to begin. 

“It’s clear to me tonight that there isn’t a path for me to win the nomination,” Christie said during an event Wednesday in Windham, New Hampshire

Ramaswamy hosted a town hall live Wednesday night with podcast host Tim Pool.

Trump continues to hold a sizable lead in the polls, with Haley and DeSantis trading places for second or third place, depending upon the poll. 

The following are highlights from the final debate before the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 15. 

1. K-12 Education

Tapper said South Carolina ranked in the “bottom 10” for public education among states. He asked Haley why Republican voters should trust the former South Carolina governor on K-12 issues over her GOP competitors.

She answered that she knew education was an issue in her state and started making changes to policy. She said that South Carolina began holding children back in the third grade if they couldn’t read because, according to statistics, they were much less likely to graduate.

Haley said there are huge problems with education across the nation and that she would shift federal programs down to the state level. She said that states, and especially parents, know what kind of education children need.

DeSantis shot back at Haley that while she said she wants to help parents, she failed to implement school choice programs, despite saying she would give scholarships, particularly to low-income families.

“She was governor and never did it. She caved to the teachers union,” the Floridian said.

DeSantis said he delivered the largest school choice expansion in the history of the United States. He said he even did “paycheck protection” so that teachers wouldn’t have to pay dues to the union.

He said the results speak for themselves.

“We have the top-performing fourth grade reading and math in the country, and if you just took our charter school population—365,000 kids, disproportionately low-income, racial, ethnic minorities—if they were their own state, they would be in the top five in performance,” DeSantis said.

Haley responded by saying that she fought for school choice “for my entire career.” She said that’s why she created charter schools in her state and “empowered homeschoolers.”

She said she pushed for school choice in South Carolina, but the majority Republican legislature wouldn’t pass it.

“That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it across the country, but what we have to do is, we have to make it state-centric. We’ve got to get these programs down to the state level. We’ve got to let the focus be on teachers,” Haley said.

Right now, she said, teachers are fulfilling too many jobs for schools—like being guidance counselors—instead of teaching the basics.

2. Abortion

Asked if he thinks Haley is “sufficiently pro-life,” DeSantis called her out for engaging in “left-wing tropes” about abortion, such as referencing the left-wing claim that pro-life activists want to imprison women over abortion.

“That’s using the language of the Left to attack pro-lifers,” he said, suggesting that Haley is trying to “speak to different groups” by saying “different things.”

Haley responded that she is “unapologetically pro-life.”

“These fellas don’t know how to talk about abortion,” she said. “I’ve said over and over again the Democrats put fear in women on abortion and Republicans have used judgment. This is too personal of an issue to put fear or judgment. Our goal should be: How do we save as many babies as possible and support as many moms as possible? That’s what we are going to focus on doing.”

The candidates also addressed whether Trump is sufficiently pro-life, building on DeSantis’ previous criticism of the former president’s recent abortion remarks.

Haley responded that Trump had “done some pro-life things when he was president,” but said that he should speak for himself.

3. China

America must end all “normal trade relations with China,” Haley said, until fentanyl stops flowing from China to the Mexican drug cartels who smuggle it into America. 

Haley claimed that Trump “didn’t deal with China when it came to stealing intellectual property, the fact they gave us [COVID-19], the fact that they have gone and continued to put up Chinese police stations [in the U.S.] and continue to threaten our military.” 

DeSantis fired back, saying, “When Nikki Haley was governor of South Carolina, she was the No. 1 governor in America for Republicans of bringing China into her state.”

The Florida governor claimed that Haley has said China is a friend to America and argued that “bringing China into the state of South Carolina” was Haley’s “No. 1 achievement as governor.”

“I banned China from buying land in our state, and we kicked them out of our universities,” DeSantis said of his policies in Florida, a reference to Confucius Institutes.

4. The Constitution and COVID-19

When a moderator asked DeSantis whether he and Trump had different approaches to the Constitution after a discussion of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot, the governor attacked Trump for “word vomit” about “terminating the Constitution.” The Floridian added that he would criticize Trump, but he also criticized those who violated the Constitution during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think it’s fine to criticize Donald Trump, but you know who else deserves to be criticized? The people that violated the Constitution during COVID to lock people out of schools, to destroy businesses, to force masks on people, to try to force vaccines,” he said.

“I’m going to bring a reckoning to all these agencies—the CDC, the NIH, the FDA,” he added, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and the Food and Drug Administration, respectively.

5. Israel and Gaza

Asked about their stances on Israel’s response to the brutal Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack, both Haley and DeSantis expressed staunch support for Israel. Tapper specifically asked the candidates whether they would support “the mass removal of Palestinians from Gaza.”

DeSantis responded that “we’ve got to support Israel, in word and in deed, in public and in private.”

“They need to be able to finish the job,” he said. “[President] Joe Biden is kneecapping them. He’ll say one thing, then he goes and his base doesn’t like Israel, so he’s got to do all these other things. This is a time to recognize that they suffered the most deaths of Jews, murder of Jews, since the Holocaust. Hamas wants a second Holocaust. They want to annihilate the state of Israel.”

To be a good ally, the Florida governor said, the United States should back Israel in the decisions it is making in regard to Gaza. He then criticized Haley for formerly supporting the “two-state solution” for Israel and Gaza.

“We also have a disagreement, Gov. Haley and I. When she was at the United Nations, she supported the idea of a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs,” he said. “The problem with that is, the Palestinian Arabs don’t recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

“So, doing a two-state solution doesn’t create something that’s going to lead to a lasting peace. It creates a steppingstone for Israel’s destruction,” he added. “So, under no circumstances as president am I going to pressure Israel to risk their security to do a so-called two-state solution. She was wrong when she embraced that, and we’re right to say, ‘We trust Israel to make these decisions.’ They’re a good ally of ours. We should trust their judgment on these sensitive issues.”

Haley responded by stressing her support for Israel, saying they are “the tip of the spear when it comes to defeating terrorism.”

“It has never been that Israel needs America,” she said. “It has always been that America needs Israel.”

“When I was at the United Nations,” she said of her stint as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. during the Trump administration, “I fought every day for Israel, and if you would have listened to what I said at the United Nations, a two-state solution wasn’t something that was possible because Israel would always come to the table and the Palestinians wouldn’t.

“But right now, we have to make sure that Israel has the support that it needs. There should be three things: Give Israel whatever it wants to get the job done. Two, eliminate Hamas once and for all. And three, do whatever it takes to bring the hostages home.”

Haley then took a swipe at DeSantis, accusing him of hypocrisy for his association with Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky.: “But it’s really rich that Ron is going to act like he suddenly cares for Israel when he brought the person to Iowa that is the most anti-Israel Republican in the state, the person that went and voted against Israel’s right to exist in Congress, the person that voted with the [far-left congressional Democratic] Squad against antisemitism on college campuses.”

Massie responded from his campaign account on X, saying, “I’m living in Nikki Haley’s head rent free … and trust me, there’s plenty of empty space in here!”

6. Border Crisis

Tapper asked DeSantis how he would address the illegal immigration crisis and how he would pay for a wall on the southern border.

DeSantis said that he would build the wall and “actually have Mexico pay for it.” The Florida governor said he would do that by charging fees on remittances that immigrants send back to their home countries.

He said Trump deported fewer people than his predecessor, President Barack Obama, and that Biden has allowed in 8 million illegal immigrants.

“They all have to go back. We have to enforce the rule of law in this country,” he said.

DeSantis then cited how children attending a school in Brooklyn, New York, were recently forced to switch to online learning so the building could be used to house illegal immigrants.

“Talk about putting America last. You’re putting these kids out of an education because you can’t control the border?” DeSantis asked rhetorically.

He said Biden had failed to secure the border, but Haley can’t be trusted on illegal immigration.

“That’s like having the fox guard the henhouse,” DeSantis said, then followed up by saying that she’s weak on immigration and “bankrolled by people” who favor open borders. He also criticized Haley for saying that illegal immigrants shouldn’t be called “criminals.”

Haley said she didn’t think we should let them into the country.

“When I was governor of South Carolina, we passed the toughest illegal immigration law in the country,” she said. “Obama sued us over it, and we won. We fought Obama on illegal immigration. We fought Obama on migrant kids. We fought Obama on Syrian refugees. We fought Obama on Guantanamo Bay prisoners.”

Haley said the United States is a country of laws and the “second we stop being a country of laws is the second we give up everything this country was founded on.”

The former South Carolina governor said that in addition to those tough immigration laws, she passed E-Verify, a policy that requires businesses to confirm that workers have a legal right to work in the U.S. before hiring them.

She said that the U.S. needs to have more Border Patrol agents on the ground, that we need to finish the wall, that we need to restore the “Remain in Mexico” policy of the Trump administration so that “no one steps foot” illegally on American soil, and that we need to switch from “catch and release” to “catch and deport.”

7. Weaponization of the DOJ

DeSantis stressed the importance of ending “the weaponization of government.” 

“The IRS has been weaponized against conservatives going back to the Obama administration,” he explained. “I was there for that. No one has been held accountable for doing that. You look at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Justice. The weaponization of federal power ends the day I become the president of the United States.

“There is going to be a new sheriff in town. We’re going to restore the constitutional accountability that our Founding Fathers envisioned when they formatted the Constitution,” he added. 

The Florida governor said he often speaks with “folks” who deal with “overbearing federal agencies,” promising to not only “reduce the size of government,” but also “to reduce the scope of government.”

“And in Florida, I’ve actually delivered on this,” he added. “Florida has the lowest percentage of state government workers per capita in the country, and the cost of our state government employees is the lowest in the country. No wonder why we’re paying down debt while we’re cutting taxes for people. That’s the way you do it.”

8. Ending Sales Tax on Baby Items

“I also think it’s important that we lift people up, so in Florida, we eliminated all sales tax on every baby item—diapers, wipes, strollers, cribs,” he said. “We want families to be able to prosper in this country.”

He lamented the “breakdown in the American family,” and said, “We need to make it easier for people to raise children in this country.”

Last May, DeSantis signed a $2.7 billion tax cut bill that permanently exempted baby and toddler necessities from sales taxes. According to his office, the bill included a permanent exemption for strollers, cribs, diapers, and baby wipes, among other things. 

The law, HB 7063, exempts cribs, including playpens, play yards, strollers, safety gates, baby monitors, child safety cabinet locks and latches, electrical socket covers, bicycle child-carrier seats, baby exercisers, breast pumps, baby wipes, changing tables and changing pads, diapers, baby and toddler clothing, and more.

9. Transgenders and Bathrooms

When Haley was governor of South Carolina, DeSantis said, she “killed” a bill to prevent men from using women’s bathrooms. 

“She didn’t fight for the kids,” DeSantis said. “She caved to the Chamber of Commerce.”

“First of all, that was 10 years ago,” Haley fired back. “We had a handful of kids that may have had that issue, and what I made clear at that time in the state is: Girls go into girls’ bathrooms, boys into boys’ bathrooms. If there are exceptions, they use a private bathroom.”

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